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In many societies where the economic aspects of life are intimately associated with group interests, bride-price is present as an arrangement between corporate groups that negotiate transfers of wealth and rights. Bride-price, sometimes referred to as bride-wealth, is a form of marriage payment in which the bride's group receives a payment of goods, money, or livestock to compensate for the loss of a woman's labor and the children she bears. These exchange relations between families may persist over many years and in some societies constitute the chief means for the circulation of wealth. In these situations, marriage is a corporate enterprise in which control over prestige valuables is exercised by an older generation of men. Marriage payments are thus a way of establishing and securing alliances and for allocating women's labor power and fertility.

Bride-price is not a payment for women, but rather is seen as a way of valuing the labor of women, the effort involved by the bride's family in raising the female, and the labor value of a woman's offspring. The payment is a way of securing the rights of the husband's group over the woman's children. Although women are valued in such societies, their status relative to men's is lower because it is the men who make the corporate household decisions. Often, payments are made in installments in case the couple divorces or fails to produce a child.

A cluster of variables has been identified as being associated with bride-price. It is more common in descent systems that are patrilineal, although when it is found in a matrilineal system, it is the case that the wife moves to the residence of the husband's group. Subsistence economies that are horticultural or pastoral and marked with a relative absence of social stratification also feature bride-price, and there is evidence that it is common where land is abundant and the labor of women and children contributes to group welfare.

In societies that have some type of economic transaction with marriage, bride-price accounts for almost half the cases, making it the most common form of marriage payment arrangement. Often bride-price is contrasted with a rarer form of marriage payment, dowry, which is a transfer of wealth by the relatives of the bride to her and her husband and which operates in stratified societies. It has been noted that shifts from bride-price to indirect dowry (a contribution by the groom to the bride for her use) have occurred in African society in response to shifts in economic behavior.

Bride-price is an important variable that is particularly useful for charting social change, broad patterns of cultural evolution, the economics of inheritance, and the status of women. Studies of bride-price also shed light on strategies for bargaining and negotiation because these are important dynamics in setting the level of bride-price payment that in turn is dependent on local economic conditions, such as the availability of land.

Because the transfer of wealth has implications for status and power, the study of the mechanisms and variables associated with bride-price is an important topic of study for anthropologists, demographers, and social historians. Evolutionary ecological studies have also examined bride-price because of the significance of women's labor and reproductive value to evolutionary hypotheses. In this area of study, researchers make assumptions about maximizing the material, social, or political value of the exchange.


Borgerhoff Mulder, M. (1995). "Bridewealth and its Correlates: Quantifying Changes over Time." Current Anthropology 36:573–603.

Cronk, L. (1991). "Wealth Status and Reproductive Success among the Mukogodo of Kenya." American Anthropologist 93:345–360.

Ensminger, J., and Knight, J. (1997). "Changing Social Norms: Common Property, Bridewealth, and Clan Exogamy." Current Anthropology 38:1–24.

Goody, J. (1976). Production and Reproduction: A Comparative Study of the Domestic Domain. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Tambiah, S. J. (1989). Bridewealth and Dowry Revisited: The Position of Women in Sub-Saharan Africa and North India. Current Anthropology 30:413–435.


Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaFamily & Marriage Traditions